The city manager in Orange, Texas, has decided to remove a nativity scene from public property after a local atheist group requested to display a banner wishing everybody happy holidays.
Shawn Oubre announced the decision Dec. 14, and he also noted that the Orange County Atheists' request to display the banner was denied.
The city said that there was no clear guidance from case law on whether religious scenes on public property complies with the Constitution.
“This makes it difficult to formulate a policy for Christmas decorations on city property,” read the city’s statement, according to the Beaumont Enterprise. “Based on this and knowing that the Constitution makes a distinction between church and state, the city will be removing the nativity scene to avoid the legal costs associated with defending the placement of the nativity scene and focus on the true meaning of Christmas.”
In its request to display the banner alongside the nativity scene, the Orange County Atheists said that showcasing the nativity scene alone meant the square was a “public forum” for religion.
“We didn’t care that there was a nativity there as long as we could be included there as well,” Joshua Hammer, spokesman for the group, told the Enterprise.
The group’s proposed banner read, “Whether you are celebrating Saturnalia, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, the Winter Solstice, or any other holiday this time of year, the Orange County Atheists would like to wish you… Happy Holidays!”
“This was honestly not what we wanted because citizens are going to place blame on us,” Hammer added. “Now they are going to say it’s our fault because we made the request. Logically, we never asked for anything to be removed.”
Hammer also noted that the atheist group never threatened legal action in their banner request.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas released a statement expressing his opposition to removing the nativity scene.
“As the U.S. Supreme Court has continually held, public acknowledgement of our religious heritage is entirely consistent with the Constitution,” Abbott said.
The city’s decision has had an impact on the county level, as Orange County Judge Brint Carlton said Dec. 15 that commissioners would be meeting to decide whether to remove the nativity scene from the courthouse lawn.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton urged the city and county not to remove the scenes.
“My office stands ready to provide appropriate legal support to the city and the commissioners court,” he said in a news release, according to WFAA.